Humanities and the Senses

Humanities and the Senses Cover Humanities Lecture Series 2014-2015

Series Overview: Humanities and the Senses

"There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the senses. We can extend our senses with the help of microscope, stethoscope, robot, satellite, hearing aid, eyeglasses and such, but what is beyond the senses we cannot know. Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter." –Diane Ackerman

This year's lecture series in the Humanities will examine the role of the senses in human culture. As human beings, we experience and come to understand the world through our senses. While Descartes famously stated "I think therefore I am" — questioning the trustworthiness of sense perception — one wonders how long he would have survived to think such thoughts without the benefit of his senses. Diane Ackerman has written that "The senses don't just make sense of our life in bold or subtle acts of clarity, they tear reality apart into vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern."

But the ways in which humans have created meaningful patterns from the senses vary widely (and sometimes wildly) between cultures. Some cultures have privileged certain senses above others, and these hierarchies of the senses have often served to create or reinforce class and gender distinctions. Mark Michael Smith notes that Plato and Aristotle, "lumped taste with the supposedly proximate senses of touch and smell while touting seeing and hearing as the only genuinely philosophical and distinctly 'masculine' senses."

Scholarly examinations of human cultures, both past and present, can help illuminate the changes in how the senses are valued — and this, in turn, can encourage us to consider how we might understand the varied uses of the senses in those different contexts.

For additional information about any of the humanities lectures call 717-815-1349.